A spontaneous reaction

I’m still struggling to get back into a writing routine after my John Muir Trail adventure, there’s a lot going on in my life and job, and I’m still a bit consumed with the deeper, reflective topics I’d spent all those miles contemplating on my trip. 

And then, without a lot of forethought or anticipation, a topic (re)surfaced.

Towards the end of the last school year, there was an incident of racism at my daughter’s high school, which revealed the complexity and range of our community’s response.  I wrote about this at the time it happened, how in general many opportunities were missed to both care for those involved, as well as make the most of learning from it. 

And not one to lob criticism from the sidelines, I agreed to join a taskforce setup to better understand our community’s ability to foster diversity, and what we all can do differently to ensure racism or any other form of discrimination has a short life, if any, here.  We had a meeting on September 9, and while there is still more motion than progress, the trend-line is a good one, and we’re converging on a set of recommendations that are actionable and durable.

A lot of what we’ve discussed is how to show people that in the moment there are choices, and how to choose to speak out, to stand up. 

So when I came across an article in the Seattle Times last Thursday morning about a 70 year-old Armenian man, Henry Gasparian, it found my mind prepared and inqusitive.  He was arrested for his spontaneous “personal and emotional” reaction to seeing posters of Barack Obama with a Hitler mustache.  Gasparian lived through the occupation of his country by the Nazis.

He was on his way to the Edmonds Farmers Market, and when he saw these posters, he tried to grab them out of the hands of the Lyndon Larouche supporters who were handing them out.  To make this sad, long story a bit shorter, he was charged with two counts of fourth degree assault.  You can and should read the article.

The courage of this man and the raw logic of his outrage are inspiring.  The only action remotely criminal was not the offensive poster (first amendment right) nor Gasparian’s reaction (common sense), but the need to silence him, to criminalize his behavior. 

It seems cowardly on the part of the Larouche supporters to show up with this offensive poster, taking full advantage of the protection of the constitution, and then not be willing to tolerate the (expected) reactions.  To claim Gasparian reacted “without provocation” seems absurdly ironic.

While the Larouche supporters could perhaps feel justified that Gasparian’s physical actions were threatening, I think the burden is on them to anticipate the reactions they could provoke.  If you yell “Fire” in a movie theater, you shouldn’t be able to charge the crowd that tramples you on their way out the door with assault.

So last Thursday afternoon those thoughts were in the back of my mind as I was walking down the Seattle waterfront with a friend, and ten feet in front of me was a woman holding a large poster of Barak Obama, with the Hitler mustache.  I was in mid-conversation when I looked up at her, our eyes met, and she said “What do you think?,” and without breaking stride I said “I think that poster’s offensive, and you should be ashamed of yourself.”  I said it calmly, but strongly.

The woman seemed taken aback, said nothing in response, and shifted her gaze elsewhere.  And I kept walking, tried to resume the conversation, but had to explain that my reaction was completely spontaneous. 

I am not the kind of person who gets in public confrontations, but that felt so comfortable, so right, calling this out, in the moment.  In my own little way.

So I’m with Henry Gasparian, and the value of spontaneous reactions. 

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2 Responses to “A spontaneous reaction”

  1. Sally Mcdonald Says:

    There is nothing more satisfying than an appropriate measured reaction to provocation, especially when it’s spontaneous. They are seeking emotional outbursts, but the intellectual (rather than emotional) reaction always throws off the “would be” provacateurs.

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  2. Jennifer Drobac Says:

    Not all speech is protected in this country. The U.S. Supreme Court crafted the “fighting words” doctrine in 1932 as part of Chaplinsky v. New Hampshire, 315 U.S. 568 (1942). The Court explained, “There are certain well-defined and narrowly limited classes of speech, the prevention and punishment of which have never been thought to raise any constitutional problem. These include the lewd and obscene, the profane, the libelous, and the insulting or “fighting” words — those which by their very utterance inflict injury or tend to incite an immediate breach of the peace. It has been well observed that such utterances are no essential part of any exposition of ideas, and are of such slight social value as a step to truth that any benefit that may be derived from them is clearly outweighed by the social interest in order and morality.” This doctrine has been narrowed and expanded in various circumstances but it is still alive in U.S. jurisprudence. Mr. Gasparian’s response, to me, suggests that he was looking at a “fighting” poster. Now, how are we going to know what fighting words are if everyone is afraid of criminal prosecution for doing what (even the Supreme Court might conclude) comes naturally.

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